Article: Are U.S. Reform Conservatives Serious? (and why Canadian conservatives should care)

A long but rewarding read from E.J. Dionne [first published in the journal Democracy but re-published by The Atlantic on the intellectual state-of-the-nation of U.S. conservatives. Notable from Canadian eyes in this sense: The “reformicons” Dionne described as “heretics” in the U.S. Republican movement — people like like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett and Ross Douthat — appear to be advocating for a conservativism in the U.S. that, to my eyes, rather resembles the conservatism of the Conservative Party of Canada. And so, just as the Conservative Party of Canada may serve as a possible inspiration for the Republicans, so too could today’s Republican Party serve as a king of warning for Canadian Conservatives should it fail lower- and middle-income households [a recent report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer noted that under the Harper government’s tax cuts  have helped “Low and middle income earners [benefit] more, in relative terms, than higher income earners.”) have been and be seen as ignoring the problem of economic inequality in our society. 

Some excerpts from the Dionne piece:

Today’s right is a much gloomier movement more inclined to condemn heretics than to seek out converts…

[U.S.] Conservatism has also been deformed by flights of irrationality about Barack Obama, egged on by Frum’s conservative entertainment complex. The Reformicons are not the authors of the attacks on Obama as a socialist, a “Muslim,” a “Kenyan anti-colonialist,” or the bearer of a false birth certificate. Yet those who do launch such attacks have power in the Republican Party and their nasty inventions require much stronger resistance from a serious conservative intellectual movement.


There are areas where progressives and the Reformicons might find common ground, sentencing reform being one of them. But the two sides are still some distance from shared premises. The conservatives are not wrong to point to family dissolution as a genuine problem for low-income Americans. But progressives would lay heavy stress on how economic insecurity (and the mass incarceration of African Americans) has placed unbearable pressures on families even as workplace practices placing market concerns ahead of family life complicate the task of balancing work and family. To the extent that conservatives focus on family breakdown as the primary cause of poverty and avoid examining how poverty causes family breakdown, what could be a useful shared quest for sensible and compassionate policies will be reduced to another shouting match about culture and values.


Reformicons, who are diverse in their views on social issues, need to be bolder in approaching cultural modernization. To have a future, conservatism cannot view an increasingly diverse and tolerant America as a horror. A Burkean traditionalism honors the gifts diverse communities bring to a nation.

One thought on “Article: Are U.S. Reform Conservatives Serious? (and why Canadian conservatives should care)”

  1. Thank you for the link to the main article by Dionne. It was an interesting read, and yes, while it is a bit long it is also well worth the time to take I would suggest. In many ways it left me with the thought that what the American Right is needing is its own version of Gorbachev to break the ideological nightmare looping of extreme conservativism in much the same way he managed to do with the insane extreme Communist looping of the USSR, but hopefully without triggering the dissolution of his country (which to be fair is a significantly less likely outcome given that the USA is not the polyglot of conquered nations that the USSR was).

    The reformacons referred to in the article may be helping to lay the foundation for such a person to rise to power, but given the limits currently in place that Dionne noted regarding the fact that changing the pizza is far harder in the US GOP than changing the box (which will not suffice in any meaningful long term sense) does not lend much hope to seeing such a rise all that soon. Perhaps after a Hillary Clinton (who at this point I still think is the most likely successor to Obama on the Dem side barring something preventing her from running/winning the Dem primary that is not visible at this time) Presidency follows Obama that might finally happen, but even then I wonder. Can the choke-hold the extremists have on the GOP Primary structure be broken even then given that extremists tend to get more so when feeling threatened than less so.

    I would suggest though that in Dionne’s closing elements where he points out the lessons the Dems /left could take from what happened with the joining of disillusioned liberal thinkers who joined the right in the 70s and 80s could be of value now in reverse is in some ways even more currently applicable here in Canada given just how extreme the Harper version of Conservativism is compared to anything remotely resembling true Canadian Conservative political thought rooted in our Conservative history. This is one of those areas the Liberals could make major long term gains in if they are careful enough to keep their tent open to these folks feeling they need a new home but cannot go over to the NDP because of perceived ideological extremism by their lights. In many ways Harper has done a compressed version of what Dionne describes took the GOP decades to do in terms of ideological shift and the demands for purity/fealty to that narrow definition of conservative thought. As the lessons for where that takes one becomes increasingly obvious in the USA, it is almost certainly going to be here too as well, and faster since unlike the USA Canada was never a society overly enraptured by hyper individualism, rabid capitalism, and the idea that the only good government is no government.

    As I said before, a very interesting read, that Dionne article, with a lot to think on regarding both American and Canadian federal politics. Thanks.

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